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FICTION: A HANDMAID’S TALE

October 15, 2017

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In her second major novel on Eastern history, Oxford-trained historian Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang makes the energetic figure of Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Lord Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, her titular subject. By no means an uncontroversial pair, in 1947 the couple faced the monumental task of withdrawing the British from, and effecting the partition of, India. Straddling the realms of romantic and historical fiction, Tsang attempts to sketch Edwina and Jawaharlal Nehru’s relationship as seen through the eyes of the vicereine’s special assistant, Lady Letticia ‘Pippi’ Wallace.

All well and good, except that there is precious little material on the famous liaison and far more on the romance between the fictional Pippi and the equally fictional Indian doctor Hari Rathore. The title of the book is thus grossly — some would say unforgivably — misleading since Edwina makes barely half a dozen memorable appearances and displays even fewer tender moments with Nehru. Nehru himself is a more pervasive presence, but even he is portrayed as less of a lover and more of a platonic friend of Pippi’s, in whom he confides from time to time. Although numerous love letters between Nehru and Edwina exist, in her acknowledgements the author notes that they are currently sealed under an embargo. Tsang draws on some biographical material in order to give us a whiff of this deliciously taboo romance, but to be perfectly honest, she does not appear to have enough basis for a short story, let alone a whole book. So while The Last Vicereine works well enough as a love story, it simply isn’t the love story one would expect it to be.

Now the good news: Pippi and Hari’s love affair emerges as admirably authentic, their interracial struggles mirroring those faced by Nehru and Edwina. The reader’s chagrin at the elusive nature of Edwina’s love life melts away as one becomes engrossed by Pippi’s personal view of pre-Partition India and her emotional reliance on Hari. The hard-working and dignified Hari appreciates Pippi’s determination to do as much tangible good as possible in both a humanitarian as well as personal sense. No stranger to war and violence, Pippi — who had worked for St John’s Ambulance Brigade in London during the Second World War — rolls up her sleeves, grits her teeth and does her best to alleviate the suffering of the many individuals whose lives were shredded even as their country was ripped in half. Regardless of whether she is ministering to the needs of Muslims taking shelter in Delhi’s Purana Qila or Sikhs and Hindus reeling from vicious attacks in Rawalpindi, Pippi emerges as a genuine heroine — altruistic, practical and caring.

Historical fiction, ostensibly about Lady Mountbatten, sidelines her for the story of her fictional secretary

There are plausible motives underlying Pippi’s success. We are told that she lost both her sons during the Second World War, and then her husband to an illness shortly after. Although she does not immediately understand this, her sojourn in India helps her exorcise some of the demons that plague her. So useful does she make herself that, following Partition, she is offered a humanitarian post by the Indians that enables her to stay on in the country. Given the deep resentment against the dying British Raj, one marvels at how Pippi’s fortitude earns her the respect of differing factions within a strife-ridden India. Often without realising it she steals Edwina’s thunder, perhaps because there is a selfless purity to how Pippi dedicates herself to saving lives. Edwina, on the other hand, merely comes across as an actress on an unsteady stage.

Several famous historical figures make appearances in the book, but often as little more than cameo portrayals. These include a single brief description of Mohammad Ali Jinnah that notes his preference for Pall Mall cigarettes, a slightly longer episode where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi teaches Pippi and Edwina how to spin cloth, and a moment where Nehru’s young daughter Indira expresses familial anxiety for her father’s safety. But Tsang only fleetingly touches upon these elements of her historical backdrop, preferring to adhere to territory she is more comfortable with. While this may be a wise move in aggregate, it often leaves the reader hungering for more.

Even Mountbatten remains beyond the reader’s grasp, except perhaps when Pippi leaves his service towards the end of the book. At that point he seems more like an exhausted, overgrown schoolboy than the king’s imperial representative. The same can be said of Cyril Radcliffe who heaves a sigh of relief as he ‘gives’ Lahore to Pakistan, claiming privately (and unprofessionally) to Pippi that since the Indians are getting Calcutta it would hardly be fair to give them Lahore as well!

Fatima Jinnah is mentioned in the book’s endnotes, but one wishes that her important meeting with Edwina (where she made note of how much discrimination Muslims faced in India) had been fictionalised as well. Omissions such as this leave one perplexed and frustrated. Indeed, Edwina’s spirited attitude towards making the best of a remarkably tricky political and personal situation is alluded to a couple of times, but one never truly gets to know her character the way one does Pippi’s. Aside from a reckless romantic attitude, an ailing dog for a pet, a penchant for pretty clothes and bright red lipstick and a tendency to throw the occasional upper-crust tantrum when things don’t work out as she wishes, one learns very little about the last vicereine. That she appeared historically remote to those who surrounded her in India is hardly a surprise; that she remains remote in a story that is ostensibly dedicated to her personal life is unfortunate to say the least.

Partition was a necessary, albeit violent, geopolitical occurrence and given India’s historical complexity it would not be fair to expect even more seasoned authors to do justice to it. Yet, ironically, Tsang does a much better job of depicting India than she does Edwina — everything from Simla’s hills and Delhi’s heat haze to under-equipped hospitals and railway trains riddled with bullets are described vividly in the author’s eminently readable prose. Not since Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India has a novelist written such an engaging account of how geographical independence can bring out the best and the worst in people. Tsang may not be Rudyard Kipling, but then, as her novel implicitly indicates, Kipling’s days are long gone.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The Last Vicereine
By Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang
Penguin, UK
ISBN: 978-0143441106
340pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 15th, 2017